THE BLOG

Iran and the West: From Lose-Lose to Win-Win

Iran and the West have common interests and the key to protecting these interests and solving other regional issues is through a resolution on the nuclear crisis. Solving the nuclear issue is an important key to prevent nuclear proliferation, but also to potentially find a political settlement on Syria and to stabilize other regional issues (such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Egypt). It is also one of the keys to end Iran's economic downfall, but it would also be helpful for the European economic recovery. Let's unpack this:

First of all, the crippling U.S. sanctions on banking transactions and the E.U. oil embargo have severely hurt the Iranian economy, and it is in Iran's interest to find a way out of this crisis.

However, ending the deadlock is also in the interest of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) because their concerns over nuclear proliferation have increased at the pace of U.S. and E.U. led sanctions. So far, the stated goal, "changing Iran's behavior" regarding its nuclear program has not decreased that concern. Indeed, before 2006 (first round of U.N. sanctions) Iran had about 3,000 centrifuges, it was enriching its uranium at the level of 3.5 percent and it had stockpiled only a few hundred kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU). Today, Iran has 18,000 centrifuges, it is enriching at a level of 20 percent and it has a stockpile of over 8,000 kilograms of LEU (and a stockpile of nearly 300 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 20 percent).

Iran and the P5+1 are engaged in a diplomatic track to reverse that escalatory process (more crippling sanctions vs. more nuclear enrichment capability). The return of diplomacy is positive for both sides, and Washington and Tehran need results to calm down their respective lawmakers and pressure groups that have invested a lot on the escalation of tensions between Iran and the United States.

Strategically, ending Iran's isolation -- that goes against the geopolitical forces of the region -- will create a new configuration that will help to unlock regional crises such as Syria. So far, we have seen that Bashar al-Assad is in a better position than the Syrian opposition the West has been backing and trying to organize for months. The more the Syrian crisis deepens the more the Syrian border erodes, and ultimately the more al-Qaeda and jihadist groups like al-Nusra gain ground in the region.

This radical Sunni-Islamist expansion represents a common concern for Iran and the West (and the Middle East). On the one hand, Americans have been the target of these fundamentalist groups from Benghazi, Libya to Herat, Afghanistan. On the other hand, Iranians and Shia populations are also victims of these groups in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. Therefore, there is common ground for cooperation between Iran and the U.S on regional security issues (and in the past, cooperation on Afghanistan has proven to be possible and fruitful for both sides from September 11, 2001 to January 29, 2002's "Axis of Evil" speech, it is now a necessity).

The P5+1 know that Iran is not necessarily in a position of weakness. Vali Nasr, Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies of John Hopkins University, points out that "Iran has come out of the Arab Spring better positioned than any of its regional rivals, and the turmoil in Syria, its ally, has paradoxically strengthened it further." Iran, because of its influence over Bashar al-Assad, could therefore join the Geneva II conference (as advocated by the U.N. special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi). All the regional players would then be at the same table to discuss a political settlement.

However, the Syrian crisis and the nuclear talks need to be addressed separately because the West will not accept Iran to use its influence over Syria as a bargaining chip at the table of negotiations regarding the nuclear issue. However, progress on nuclear talks will facilitate progress on the Syrian crisis.

The European Union also has interest in finding a way out of the nuclear crisis, and many of these interests differ from the U.S.'s. The E.U. needs to recover from the Euro crisis and it knows two things: first, its energy costs are much higher than the United States. Secondly, it is dependent on energy imports. And as nearly one quarter of its energy needs are imported from Russia, diversifying its imports of natural resources represent a significant strategic interest. Europe -- which is largely dependent on the Russian giant Gazprom for its energy needs -- has an interest in seeking a competitor to lower its growing gas bill.

The South Pars/North Dome gas field -- which is located in the Persian Gulf -- is the largest in the world. Getting natural gas from Qatar is now a complicated option because Assad's Syria is on the way. Solving the nuclear crisis and lifting the oil embargo will reopen the E.U.'s access to Iran's huge natural resources. It means that Western companies -- eager to work with the tremendous market that Iran represents -- will be free to go back to Iran, but most importantly, it would lower the price of oil.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia exports 10.4 million barrel per day of crude oil. If there is a deal on the nuclear issue, Iran may be able, in the medium-term, to export to its level of three to four million b/d instead of the million it is currently exporting because of sanctions. And as Saudi Arabia will need time to go back to the pre-sanctions export level on Iran, there will be more oil on the global market (89 million b/d today), which means that the price of the barrel will go down.

For its part, the U.S. has different interests since only 9 percent of the U.S. oil supply comes from the Middle East (the U.S. gets most of its natural resources from the Western hemisphere and is about to become the first energy exporter thanks to shale gas). What matters for Washington is to keep control over the price and the flow of oil. Investors and traders need the price of oil to be stable in order to invest, and they need a guarantee. As the United States is militarily moving away from the Middle East, it needs a long-term strategy to stabilize the region and for institution building. And as Iran is geopolitically central to the region, they both need to end the deadlock and find a way out of this crisis.

Now that there is a more positive atmosphere regarding the nuclear talks, Rouhani's government and the Obama administration are dealing with their lawmakers to make diplomacy successful. Lawmakers must now pave the way for diplomats who will meet again in Geneva on November 7-8.